Think back to March 2020. All over the world, people are realizing we’re in an unprecedented time, and questions are swirling. Is it safe to visit brick-and-mortar retail? Can grocery stores meet demand? Is this the end of travel? How will work adapt and businesses transform?
Over six months later, many of these questions are still unanswered, and the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. But we now have some learnings available on how companies navigated that early uncertainty that can help others chart their path forward.
At the Amplify 2020 conference—the largest (virtual) gathering of product and growth leaders in the world—Amplitude’s EVP of Product Sandhya Hegde moderated the panel “Growth in a Pandemic” with three companies that have seen massive growth in 2020: Shipt, Shopify, and Imperfect Foods.
Vice President of Data Science Vinay Bhat represented Shipt, a nationwide grocery delivery and last-mile grocery logistics solution. Director of Data Science Phillip Rossi spoke for Shopify, a global ecommerce platform that helps entrepreneurs grow, manage and market retail businesses. Vice President of Product Patti Chan represented Imperfect Foods, a consumer product that takes excess food from grocers and distributes it to customers.
Watch the full video or read on for an abbreviated account of the panel discussion. Please note, some quotes have been edited for clarity.
Take us back to March. What were you seeing?
Vinay noted, “On Thursday, March 12th, we saw demand go through the roof. Very quickly, we had to react.” They assembled “tactical squads” for internal and external initiatives. One such external project: sending out PPE to their shoppers and supporting them as they brought groceries to customers who couldn’t leave their homes. Internally, engineers and data scientists stepped up to lead product teams, identifying quick wins to help both customers and internal support teams.
“As we spun up features, actually Amplitude came in very handy for us while trying to figure out where people were coming into the process, where they were dropping out in the checkout funnel, how many people were struggling to see delivery windows,” Vinay said. While Shipt certainly wasn’t the only delivery service struggling to meet demand, thanks to their access to product intelligence with Amplitude, “we were able to iterate and be flexible in March and April in a way we hadn’t planned for.”
Since Shopify is a global company, they started seeing the effects of COVID-19 in January. By March, they realized they needed to rethink their roadmap. Shopify set up a task force of data scientists who were normally embedded in different teams to come together and help tell the story of what was happening.
For Shopify merchants, the pandemic’s impact was huge. Phillip reported that a lot of merchants who weren’t traditionally online, like grocers, libraries, and breweries, moved online very quickly. Others pivoted to offer new products like masks.
At Imperfect Foods, Patti saw that the average order size was going up a few weeks prior to March. As the country was shutting down, Imperfect Foods assembled a COVID task force. Leadership met every day, twice a day, and passed priorities down to the product management team. Usually, they operate with more of a bottom-up approach, but in the early days of the pandemic, they temporarily became more top-down in order to move faster.
How did you forecast? How did you pivot your strategy?
“Forecasting turned on its head in March,” said Vinay. They used to plan on a quarterly and annual basis. But when demand spiked in March, they needed to scale their shopper staffing to meet it. The executive team and the board had a lot of questions about how quickly they could scale and what were the anticipated challenges. And while, usually, their forecasts had a high level of accuracy, everyone had to adjust to a higher level of uncertainty.
Shipt’s forecasting became more nimble and more human. They accounted for what they knew about how the pandemic was spreading, such as when areas started sheltering in place and what new regulations were being enacted.
Shopify likewise faced many questions and uncertainty. Forecasting became about playing out different scenarios and informing leadership of what might happen through several different projections; this was a new exercise.
The company also benefited massively from having a strong data foundation in place. “We’ve invested a lot of time in thinking about what is the way we can model our business processes so that we can ask questions and analyze and be ready for things that come up. That became hugely important,” said Phillip.
Shopify assembled a task force with the mandate to dive into insights daily and report back to the rest of the company. The team was empowered with the understanding that, on any given day, they didn’t have to have all the answers, but they could share what they were seeing, knowing tomorrow they would continue to learn new things.
At Imperfect Foods, their annual OKRs and roadmap went out the window, according to Patti. They had planned to focus on new customers and enhancing personalization but instead pivoted to operational scaling and sending timely, accurate messaging to customers. They decided to implement a waitlist—an inconceivable thought just a few months prior. “We did make the decision to really honor our existing customers, make sure that our service was as top-notch as it could be,” said Patti. This approach allowed them to get their operations in place and then communicate with customers about when subscriptions would become available.
How is your company changing because you’re going through this pandemic?
Shipt has adapted their business model to meet demand. In early March, they tested a pay-per-order model, offering one-time delivery for a small fee (previously, Shipt was only available as a subscription). Then demand spiked, and the test became an important feature that allowed “more opportunistic use of Shipt in the marketplace,” Vinay said.
The changing landscape of ecommerce has also affected grocers and, therefore, Shipt. “In grocery specifically, there were a lot of retailers who were maybe reluctant to get online, and now they’re finding that is actually a large growth path for them,” Vinay shared. Now Shipt is an integral part of that growth for their grocery customers.
For Imperfect Foods, instead of changing the company, the pandemic has led them to double down. Patti noted that the pandemic had caused a 37% spike in online grocery shopping, which hasn’t yet subsided. People are also more focused on eating healthy and choosing sustainable options. “That just gives us more confidence than ever that the strategy, where we’re focusing on our mission, is stronger than ever,” Patti noted. “We think our service meets this core need of customers getting food, getting groceries that feed them every week, while also sharing their values to do good for the planet. So, we are in double-down mode.”
How did you change your approach to data, metrics, and goal-setting in the midst of the uncertainty?
Shipt threw out their original OKRs and reset them in June based on updated forecasting. Conditions are still changing from week to week and month to month, so their new focus is on being diligent about customer insights. They are paying attention to what products people are buying, where they are buying from, and where they need to staff up.
Shopify decided not to set any new goals for 2020, but they are tracking metrics. Their data science foundation lets them keep their finger on the pulse of merchant sales, lifetime value, and other indicators of how their merchants are doing. “We’re focusing primarily on how well our merchants are getting on. We’re constantly looking at ways to help them through the pandemic,” Phillip said.
In addition to business KPIs, at Imperfect Foods, they are looking at leading indicators as the pulse of the business moves faster. One such indicator is box customizations. Their food service app automatically selects what goes into a customer’s order, and Imperfect Foods has found that the users who go in and edit their order are much more engaged overall. With Amplitude, they already had the instrumentation in place to set up cohorts who signed up before and during COVID to see how their behaviors differ.
As your companies have transitioned to remote work, how has data played into the work culture?
Shipt became much more intentional and deliberate about how they share data within the company. “There’s been a lot of change that people have experienced this year, and from a business perspective, we thought about what comfort can we provide around how the business at least is doing. We got a lot more intentional and deliberate around sharing out some of the financial metrics, sharing out some of the company performance,” said Vinay.
Since there are fewer spontaneous conversations happening remotely, Shipt also put together an “intelligence committee” led by their SVP of design and monthly “insight stack” meetings with data scientists from different disciplines. The committee and the insight stacks now regularly share data insights with a broader audience at the company.
Through these groups, Shipt realized that the spontaneous conversations they thought were happening in the office weren’t actually happening. “The reality is we probably should’ve been doing this before,” Vinay noted. “Shipt has always been data-hungry, and I think one of the things that we’ve morphed over the past six months or so, we’ve evolved in some ways to be much more deliberate about sharing out those insights and sort of engaging in cross-functional discussion.”
Shopify had built a data-informed culture, meaning that they account for both data insights and personal experience when making decisions. But when it came to the pandemic, no one had experience dealing with that kind of thing. “That was an opportunity for data to really step up, be a voice, and tell the story of what was happening in very uncertain times… We like to say data found its voice through this pandemic,” said Phillip.
Shopify started collaborating in ways they wish they had always been doing before the pandemic, such as bringing together previously embedded data scientists to share knowledge. Phillip explained, “We saw the value of having conversation amongst different people with different expertise about what was happening to our merchants and within the organization… Telling that story frequently, back to the rest of the organization, was hugely impactful and beneficial.”
Imperfect Foods saw their data culture change in two phases. In phase one, it got more simple. In the early days of the pandemic, when they were hyper-focused on fulfillment and getting orders to all of their customers, they went back to basics. “March and April were about looking at, how many deliveries did we do yesterday? What percentage were late deliveries? We focused on that until we got it back down to zero. So, basic metrics,” said Patti.
Once they got back their grasp on their operations, Imperfect Foods went into a second phase. There was a lot of curiosity, company-wide, on how users who signed up during COVID differed from past users. They used cohorts to examine who those new users were, how they were behaving, and what was motivating them to stay. Imperfect Foods also embarked on some qualitative research where they talked directly with 72 customers over the course of two weeks to learn more about them.
What’s one thing that’s changed during this pandemic that you want to bring with you moving forward?
“The pandemic has reinforced the importance of people to the outcomes,” said Vinay. “The pandemic changed the groundwork underneath most of our team members.” After the first few weeks of being in react mode in March, Shipt started thinking more proactively about planning for this new way of working. Some of that was with data storytelling, using data to bring the company along. Some of it was about changing how they manage their teams in a remote environment so that they are capable of doing the best job that they can during uncertain times.
“I’m really trying to set the stage for more tactically sharing insights across the team but also providing the right foundation, the people foundation, for people to do their best work, understanding how to work from home in this pandemic and working around strange schedules,” explained Vinay.
Phillip reiterated the importance of bringing together data scientists from different areas of expertise to share knowledge and report back to the rest of the organization. “If I could continue anything,” he said, “we really learned as a data science organization that there is a lot of value that our team can bring to the organization through storytelling.”
Their strong data foundation put them in a good position to do this kind of storytelling—Shopify didn’t have to go looking for the data; it was available. Through storytelling, the data team became more adept at providing recommendations and opinions instead of straight analysis.
Patti shared, “I think my biggest learning is really appreciating how important collaboration is. Getting all of these different people on different teams rowing in the same direction made me realize why it’s more important than ever to have that good storytelling and have a strong product vision.” That grounded vision helped her team resist becoming overly reactive to every new curveball and instead “find the calm” to double down on what they are good at.
A foundation of data and customer empathy is the recipe for growth
Sandhya from Amplitude concluded the panel with her takeaways from the discussion. “You were all really prepared to act fast. That foundation was there. Instead of scampering to figure out how to react, you were prepared.” Because of this foundation, each of these companies was able to adapt to changing circumstances, focus on the metrics that were important to them, and pivot as needed.
The second lesson Sandhya perceived was the importance of empathy in product management. “When you saw your customers’ needs changing, your companies and teams adapted to them from a place of really deep empathy,” she said. Imperfect Foods, Shipt, and Shopify often anticipated customer needs based on early signs and built services that more people would need in the future.
“Growth in a Pandemic” was just one of many compelling sessions at this year’s Amplify conference. Check out the videos from other talks, including Peloton’s David Packles and Patreon’s Maura Church.